IN PLAIN SIGHT: Stephen Lang Interview (2012)

From the very beginning of IN PLAIN SIGHT, the shadow of James Wiley Shannon has cast a pall over U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon’s world.  He was the one that got away.  Her dead-beat dad that bailed on her and her family when she was 7 years old, and with a long rap sheet of bank robberies under his belt, James Shannon was the essence of “wily”.  Mary had long espoused that the minute she ever saw her father again, she was slapping the cuffs on him and handing him over to law enforcement.  As was seen in last week’s episode, that is exactly what happened.  Jim Shannon finally made his reappearance in Mary’s life, asking for help, and she promptly whipped out the handcuffs.  In a recent conference call with press Stephen Lang shared what drew him to the role of Jim Shannon, a career-criminal who returned to reunite with his daughter.

Can you talk about how you got involved with IN PLAIN SIGHT?

STEPHEN: Well, let’s see, I received an offer to do it and read the scripts, and I felt they were terrific.  That’s really how it all came about. What I was told by Dan Lerner, who is one of the producers and directors of the show and has been with it for a long time, was that over the years they’ve talked on and off about the role of James Wiley Shannon, about Mary’s dad and who should play it. And they bandied about ideas, I guess and finally when push came to shove, they thought that I would be the right person to do it.  So I was quite thrilled. I thought it was excellent writing. I think that it’s a superb cast — led by Mary McCormack who’s terrific in the thing — and so I couldn’t see any reason in the world not to do it.

Mary and her father on "In Plain Sight"

Why you think it is that Mary’s dad expected her to be more welcoming of him, upon his return?

STEPHEN: Well, I’m not sure that he does have any expectations along those lines. First of all, I’d say that not every motive has been revealed at this point. But the only thing he can really deal with or control is his own needs — the reasons he needs to do something – and I guess you just reach a point in your life where — or he did — he reached to the point in his life where he really has to come to terms and kind of confront some of the consequences of the way he’s lived his life. And so, I just don’t believe that he has any expectations. Of course you have a fantasy or dream that after being on the lam for 30 years, you’re going to be welcomed with a hug and a kiss.  But I think realistically it’s not going to happen and he probably knows that.

What you find challenging about your role as Jim Shannon?

STEPHEN: Well, I find a lot of things challenging about the part. When I read it — it’s an arc over three scripts — there’s a completeness to it. I find it challenging, first of all, to play a character who’s been talked about for a long time, who I guess the core fans of this show have been waiting for a long time and they have feelings about him and resentments about him as they identify with Mary to try and argue as it were his side of the story — to defend his life, to defend his character.  That’s the challenge: to also be believable, convincing as Mary’s father. So I guess roles have challenges on every level to me and this one fit the bill. There are things you occasionally say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” And those roles don’t really interest me that much. This one had some bite to it. It had history and so I thought, “Yes, this is a good thing to do.” So there were a lot of challenges.  Also another thing, just sort of occupying the screen with an actress of Mary McCormack’s caliber, that’s challenging because she’s formidable woman and actress — totally believable as a Marshal to me.  I love it too.  It always seems to me that so much of what we see on television the most important thing sometimes seems to be the likeability factor. And it is important because you spend once a week with people you want to be with and she just sort of pissed-off all the time and yet somehow there’s something very daring about her. So she’s got something special, I think.

After understanding the circumstances around James and Mary, how did you find a way play James effectively?

STEPHEN: Well, I’d say, what makes a good salesman? He has an ability to lie. To some extent his life is a lie.  But the earmark of a great liar is that he believes it himself. It seems to me, he’s very convincing at that.  I mean, he’s been able to do that but like any kind of a – -what’ the right word for it? A bad, something bad that you digested — a lie — eventually it’s going to work its way out and the fundamental goodness which is not even the main part of the guy but it’s a reaction against it and he has to kind of deal with it. So I really don’t worry too much about whether I trust him or whether he’s a good man, whether he’s a bad man. I just try and inhabit him and find his point of view and not judge it so much.  Just as he wouldn’t his own self.

Mary and her father on "In Plain Sight"

In what ways were you able to give more to the character since it wasn’t quite as physically demanding as your TERRA NOVA character was?

STEPHEN: Well, I liked the idea of playing somebody where a toll has been taken on him over the years just — physically from moving about — just from circumstances being tough. But that was all pliable to me, I don’t know if I’d say that he’s quite at the end of his rope but he certainly has reached a point of vulnerability in his life where the options are starting to run out for him. He’s taken so many paths and it all seems like it’s a big maze in a way. And I think he’s just getting very tired of running.

You’ve portrayed standup guys and thoroughly evil characters but the vast majority of your roles are somewhere in between.  They are all shadings of gray, so what was it about James Wiley Shannon that suggested you wanted to do the role?

STEPHEN: I don’t know that I see things so much in terms of colors. I do talk about pallets sometimes when I act and I know what you mean. I’m a father. I have children who are grown and this circumstance of walking out on your children and the pain that you cause and the knowledge of having caused that pain and the pain that you carry with yourself because of that, to me that’s very poignant stuff. It’s something that’s very difficult for me to imagine, doing something like that. And so that makes it kind of territory that’s worth exploring a little bit, and I can’t say I go into it with any pre-conceived notion of wanting to paint him this color or that color. Sometimes I think of that wonderful line that Henry Fonda says at the end of “Once Upon a Time In The West” — he and Charles Bronson, he’s been wronged by him, and looks at him and says, “You good and bad.” And Fonda says, “I’m just a man.” I feel that way that so many of the characters you play, you’re just trying to find — I try not to put a name on it — just trying to find the person and then let others be either.  Then they can say whether he’s a hero or a villain or somewhere in between.

Now that you’ve done the role and people are about to see it, I’m just wondering how do you assess what you’ve done with the role? Do you ever think about that after you’ve finished?

STEPHEN: Well, I’ll have to watch the episodes. I haven’t seen them. I did watch the first one where I make that first appearance and I thought that was simple and it was honest. And that’s kind of what I look for. I do recall as we were shooting it, walking away from scenes feeling that I had kept it simple and kept it honest, which is really where I’m at right now.  Those are major operative words with me. And so, as I think as I watch it all I’ll assess it. And I’m sure I’ll see some things where I’ll go, “I could have done that better. Oh my gosh, what was I thinking. Why did they let me do that?” But hopefully there won’t be too many of those moments. As long as the story is well served — and I feel that the entire company of IN PLAIN SIGHT — they have such a long-term investment in this show. They’ve created these roles, this story, this saga and to me their satisfaction is paramount. If they feel if I’ve brought the life — the Shannon that they had envisioned — then I’m really happy because they’ve been with this thing long terms.

After some of the effects-heavy work in “Avatar,” “Conan,” and TERRA NOVA, is it a nice change to come in from the jungle and do something a little more grounded to reality?

STEPHEN: Well the first thing I did when I got there I said, “Excuse me, where’s the green screen?” I can’t work without a green screen. No, it was nice to get back into this kind of century for one thing and wear something that wasn’t kind of military, and tell kind of a human story.  Not that the others aren’t, but what I mean is it’s kind of on a different scale — an intimate story. I mean, I know, it’s a big show and it’s all about witness protection and everything but a sense that we’re doing a father and a daughter kind of a reunion show — albeit not a conventional reunion. And so it was great. It’s good to do it.

You have a long resume as a theater actor.  Did that help you ease your transition to the CGI heavy work and working with the green screen?  Did it help your ability to kind of work with that which you can’t see?

STEPHEN: I think it does. Sure, I mean on some level acting is the art of pretend and you have to have a highly cultivated sense of imagination. You have to be able to see things that aren’t there no matter what aspect of acting, whether it’s green screen, whether it’s on stage, whether it’s anything else, whether you’re working on the radio. And so it’s just something that we cultivate. I think for some that kind of work comes quite naturally to us but you want to develop the technique for it.

"In Plain Sight"

Is it a particular joy for you to play a character that toes the line between friend and foe?

STEPHEN: I think we probably were wondering about it — this sort of gray area and I was thinking that it’s probably a product of having worked with Michael Mann a lot because Michael is the guy who threads that gray area in almost all of this work — the distinction between good guy and bad guy. He’s so miniscule but if I look back on so many of the things that I really loved so that the characters either real or imagined that I love very often, they are characters where it’s very difficult to kind of ascertain whether they are good or bad. For example, I’ve always loved the character of Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” —  the Alec Guinness role of course. Is he a good man or is he a bad man?  I mean, or someone like Patton, who is sort of a wonderful man and at the same time a complete monster it seems to me. So I think that I do have sort of an attraction towards some of these Maverick characters, who are kind of morally ambivalent.

How do you prepare for a role in which there is so much reputation preceding the character?

STEPHEN: Well, it’s helpful that I wasn’t aware of any of it. I didn’t know what I was I walking into. I suppose with great and all due respect I only learned about the kind of the meat of this show after they asked me to do it and then I was told that and learned that he was a very important character. Well, there’s not a lot I can do about that, but also I can’t say that I’m particularly daunted by it. I played Babe Ruth. I played Stonewall Jackson. I played Ike Clanton. I played a lot of people that people have opinions about and expectations about and what I’ve learned is that you can please some of the people some of the time. You can just do your best and just try and keep it honest and who knows you might turn some people around. People have preconceptions and maybe go, “Wow, I never thought that’s who he was but that’s who he was.” But that’s who he was.  Maybe you can do that.

Was it hard walking into a cast that was so established?

STEPHEN:  Everybody was real very gracious to me and it made it very kind of clear that they wanted me there and they gave me a nice place to live and it was easy. It’s not an unfamiliar situation to come into a thing. I would say it has a certain poignancy to it for me because here I was coming into a show there and they’re in their fifth season and they know it’s their final season. So everything they do is the last time. Five years is a pretty good run — certainly in show business — and I looked around, it was nice to be a part of. I can’t tell you it made me envious because I’ve been very happy doing whatever I’ve been doing, but I really could appreciate the value, the commodore, the family atmosphere of how that emerges when people work together over a long period of time. I certainly was hoping for that for my own self for the immediate future but that wasn’t to be so if it is sort of interesting to see it and it was nice to be part of it and to kind of be an important part of it too because it’s interesting. I’m entering into the life of a show that’s been established and right away you become kind of central just because of the fact that you’re on the father that’s been on the lam all this time.  But everybody was great and it all starts with McCormack because the show radiates from her.

Do you enjoy more of the dramatic play-acting or the action scenes?  Do you find one more challenging?

STEPHEN: I like them all. I mean, I like to try to get a good balance of them. I love scenes that are just emotional give and take. By the same token action sequences are great to do. They have their own unique demands and requirements. So I take it as it comes and hopefully you can get a good balance of all of that stuff. What I rarely get to do is to do anything of a comic nature too, which is unfortunate because I’m very funny.

"In Plain Sight"

What’s your advice to actors?

STEPHEN: Oh, my goodness.  My advice to actors? To successful actors, it’s, “sock it away,” and unsuccessful actors, it’s just, “Just keep at it. Don’t do it unless you have to do it and if you have to do it, keep you’ve got to keep your instrument in shape. You just got to keep on getting better. If you’re not getting better, you’re standing still. If you’re standing still, you’re petrified. If you’re petrified, you’re not good to anybody in this business. So, just continually develop your craft.”

Is there any role you were offered that you were turned down and you regret turning down?

Steven Lang: I think there were projects. I tend to put them out of my mind and I can’t think of any one project that I turned down. I’ve had a good eye for things as a rule. Occasionally just because of time because you can’t be in two places at once. Although now you can digitally, I suppose. There have been things I haven’t been able to do, although to be honest, I can’t think of them right now. There have been things I’ve done haven’t had success that I felt bad about.  That I wanted to do more of but that’s always going to be the case it seems to me. But no, I’ll tell you I feel like I’m very happy where I am and it’s that old “butterfly effect” thing: If you change one job even 20 years ago I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now the entire trajectory would have been different.

What is it about these kinds of roles that really appeal to you, other than the fact that you keep getting offered them?

STEPHEN:  Well, it’s a good question. I think that if you look at a career probably more in retrospect from what’s happening you’ll probably be able to identify scenes that happen in an actor’s career. I mean you look at Nicholson’s career and very often you’ll see that he’s playing an outsider. Maybe at Ted Danson’s career is somebody who is an underdog and compensator. It’s just, you can say their character, qualities or themes. I’ve been interested for years on a lot of the themes that are personified — that military stuff, the nature of courage, the nature of duty, and either the whole concept of humility and selflessness. All kinds of interesting stuff and so much of the time military figures and military stores are basis for drama just because of the nature of the conflict it seems to me. So, I think it’s maybe a thematic thing as much as anything, but as you pointed out asking the question, these are the roles you get offered. That counts for a lot of it because I’d love to move outside of that as well. I feel like I’ve got a lot of range.

What appealed to you about this type of father figure and his relationship to his two kids on IN PLAIN SIGHT?

STEPHEN: I like the idea of playing a guy on the lam. I like the idea of dealing with the problem of being a father who never was a father, who was a miserable father but he wasn’t a father by absence. I mean, a father that was drinking. He was not a great father but he was there. I just loved the idea of trying to — I thought the idea of showing up after 30 years at your daughter’s door and saying, “Hi honey, here I am” was so bizarre and I mean, inexplicably it is a difficult thing to do that I wanted to do it. I wanted to see what that was like and I mean, I just thought that playing him was very easy because it’s all on Mary. All I had to do was say, “Hi honey, I’m home.” And the look on her face is just – it’s priceless. I mean, she just nailed it, I thought. So, the idea of playing a circumstance that is not part of your life but is imaginable to you and that you never played before, that’s got an appeal to me. So that’s why I would say that I was attracted to this guy.

To see whether Mary can find it in her heart to forgive her wayward father, be sure to tune in to this week’s episode entitled “The Medal of Mary,” which continues to explore the mystery of the man known as Jim Shannon.  IN PLAIN SIGHT airs Friday, April 20th at 10:00 p.m. on USA Network.

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